The distress call came at dusk on July 10, 2023. A recreational fishing boat with 11 people aboard was adrift in heavy seas west of Rota, an island about 74 kilometers north-northeast of Guam.
A French Air and Space Force crew was concluding a Mobility Guardian 23 training exercise with American and British colleagues. The Guam-based drills supported France’s Pégase 23, an almost six-week mission to demonstrate and fine-tune the European nation’s ability to protect its extensive Indo-Pacific territories and citizens.
French airmen quickly responded to the urgent broadcast, taking off in an Airbus A400M transport plane. They spotted the floundering 21-foot vessel 20 minutes later and maintained visual contact for about five hours until a Royal Canadian Air Force plane relieved them around midnight. A United States Navy helicopter rescued the boaters less than one hour later.
“We set out for a training exercise with our partners, and we ended up rescuing real people,” said the A400M’s pilot.
The rescue was a memorable facet of Pégase 23,the mission’s fourth iteration since 2018. Nineteen French aircraft —10 Rafale fighter jets, five A330 MRTT refueling/transport planes and four A400Ms — and 320 Airmen and women participated in the 2023 undertaking. The French flyers visited 10 countries to improve interoperability with 14 foreign air forces. The mission included participation in the Mobility Guardian, Northern Edge and Talisman Sabre exercises.
“These three [French] aircraft types represent a multi-purpose capacity and complement each other,” Brig. Gen. Marc Le Bouil, Pégase 23 mission commander, said in a NATO Allied Air Command news release. “While the Rafale enable fast, strong and long-range airpower, the MRTT further extend the range and reach of our assets and the A400M ensures resilient and autonomous action of the detachment.”
Pégase 23 included stops in Djibouti, Guam, Hawaii, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the French territories of French Polynesia and New Caledonia, the Asian Defence Journal magazine reported.
“The Pégase 2023 mission demonstrates the French Armed Forces ability to deploy a powerful air detachment from France to the Indo-Pacific in less than 30 hours,” said Minh-Di Tang, France’s ambassador to Singapore, according to a Military Aviation Photography Singapore report in early July. “This affirms our credibility as a partner as well as our capacity to defend our overseas territories in the Pacific.”
France has a solid Indo-Pacific presence. Along with multiple territories and an exclusive economic zone spanning some 8 million square kilometers, about 550,000 French citizens live in French territories in the region. More than 6,000 French military forces are stationed in the Indo-Pacific. French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited the region in late July 2023, has described France as an Indo-Pacific power.
Pégase 23 ran from June 25 to Aug. 3 and had three major phases, the Ministry of Armed Forces said.
- Phase I: After a one-day stopover at Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE, the French aircraft separated into two groups. One contingent flew to Malaysia and the other to Singapore.
- Phase II: The planes and crews, along with regional partners, participated in large-scale U.S.-sponsored exercises — Mobility Guardian 2023 and Northern Edge 23-2 — at locations throughout the Indo-Pacific including Guam and Palau. Meanwhile, some of France’s air fleet deployed to French Polynesia and New Caledonia.
- Phase III : The French aircraft stopped in Indonesia — during Talisman Sabre 2023 — Japan and South Korea before returning to mainland France via Djibouti and Qatar.
Training with partner forces occurred at each stopover. “We have the military cooperation between the air and space forces where we perform some air-to-air refueling missions, some combined air operations between fighters and some cross servicing between our different aircraft,” Le Bouil said, , according to Military Aviation Photography Singapore. “Second point, we do some roundtables and conferences and the last point in terms of cooperation, I will ask for exchanges in other spheres like think tanks to show our views and to understand the way people in the Indo-Pacific face different challenges.”
Pégase 23 followed the France-led Croix du Sud 23 exercise in New Caledonia. More than 3,000 service members from 19 nations participated in the two-week survival, combat, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response training in late April and early May.
France is among European nations increasingly focused on the region. “In the challenges we face there are many notable parallels between Europe and the Indo-Pacific,” the European Union stated in mid-May 2023. “Supply chains are stretched, inflation destabilizing, energy insecure, technology competitive, disinformation proliferating, and cyber security threatened. In short, the futures of Europe and the Indo-Pacific are inextricably linked, and our interests align in many ways.”